What is ‘Estuary English’?


Spoken by a large and growing number of people in the South of England, Estuary is tipped to dominate general British pronunciation within 50 years. But what is it exactly? What does it sound like? And why do some scholars think it doesn’t exist?

In order to explore the matter, we took the bold step of asking a Received Pronunciation (RP) speaker to interview an Estuary (EE) speaker:

What is ‘Estuary English’?

Well, it’s from the South of England, but it isn’t cockney, and it isn’t RP. It’s somewhere in between, so some people are a bit more towards cockney than others.

I see. Why’s it called ‘Estuary’?

Obviously because it’s spoken around the river Thames, but it’s spread a lot now, you’ll hear it pretty much everywhere within a 50 mile radius of London these days. Everywhere from Essex to Oxford, Kent to Milton Keynes, which is where I’m from. 

Is it posh?

No, not like you. But lots of posh people sound a bit Estuary when they’re trying to impress their mates in the pub, which is pathetic really. It’s a sort of classless accent, but posh people copy it to sound cool.

So it’s cool, is it?

Yeah. Definitely. You should try it.

Thanks for the tip. Presumably lots of trendy famous people speak it then? A-list celebrities and the like.

Loads of famous people speak it, yeah. Comedians like Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand, presenters like Jonathan Ross and the TV chef Jamie Oliver. Loads of singers too, like Adele and the late Amy Winehouse. The new mayor of London, as well, he’s a little bit Estuary.

What’s Estuary’s most striking feature?

We often use a glottal stop instead of a /t/ in words like LITTLE and WHAT. Oh yeah, and I replace /l/ with/u/ at the end of words, like MINIMAL.

Very fashionable. I’ve noticed that you don’t say the /j/ in Estuary. I imagine you drop it in ‘tuna’, ‘tube’ and ’Tunisia’ too, explain please.

Well, actually it sounds better if you pronounce them with /tʃ/ – TUNA, TUBE, TUNISIA and ESTUARY of course. See? That’s much better.

If you say so. I’ve also spotted that you pronounce some of your Hs, but not all of them. Why?

Sometimes I drop /h/, sometimes I keep it. It depends on my mood and my company. I definitely don’t drop it all the time, though, no. Have you got the time? I’m due back at the hotel.

There’s only a few questions left, I won’t keep you. Do you pronounce < th > on the teeth?

I fink so. Ha ha, only joking. I think I do. Hang on, I’m not sure. Ask me something else.

I think you just said “somefing”. Anyway, lots of academics can’t work Estuary out, can they? They call it all sorts of things, like “London Regional General British” and “Popular London”. Journalists aren’t much kinder, with one national cricket correspondent calling it a “ghastly estuary sludge“. Others suggest that it’s not really an accent at all. How do you feel about that?

You should hear what they say about you.  “Queen’s English”, “BBC”, “Oxford”. At least real people actually speak Estuary. Anyway, who cares what people say? Next question.

Some predict that Estuary will replace RP within 50 years – what’s your opinion on that?

I really hope so. Can I go now?

By | 2016-10-12T13:21:43+00:00 October 12th, 2016|Accents, London|6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Penny October 12, 2016 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    A recent article in the Daily Telegraph (commenting on research from the Univeristy of York) suggests that MLE (Multicultural London English) will replace Estuary by 2066! Anyway, as long as there are ex-pats like me, speaking RP in remote corners of the planet, the accent won’t disappear completely!

  2. Andrew Brown October 13, 2016 at 11:02 pm - Reply

    I think it’s a question of maintaining a standard and not being embarrassed about it. RP is a wonderful neutral accent devised to enable clear spoken communication.

    “Estuary”/”London Regional General British”/”Poplular London” is indeed an apology for daring to speak RP just in case anyone misleadingly accuses them of being a snob. To avoid RP for that reason is a clear case of inverted snobbery and those who have adopted it suffer greatly from low self-esteem.

    RP will continue to be the baseline for spoken English in England.

    • Joseph Hudson October 17, 2016 at 11:47 am - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Andrew. I think that a standard English will continue as the reference point for British English, but I think RP’s days are numbered, certainly for English teaching. The new baseline is GB English, which allows for a few regional variations to creep in – the two terms are compared here: https://pronunciationstudio.com/received-pronunciation-general-british/

      Is Estuary a form of GB? I think it depends on where the Estuary accent is on the scale between Cockney and RP.

  3. Luis November 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    What’s RP?, I commonly find a lack of explanation of acronyms in English, at least the first time is included in a Report/Speech

  4. Vince April 2, 2017 at 2:04 pm - Reply

    Luis, R.P. us an acronym for Received Pronunciation, because it is generally accepted by people in England. It is mainly used by BBC broadcasters, actors and it is spoken by upper-classes in the Southeastern part of England.

    Now it is considered conservative, Estuary English taking its turn.

    Any person in England could understand it, that is why it is also used as a model fir the teaching of British English, although there many varieties of English in the UK that they don’t much resemble neither RP English nor southern accents. So that if you are not familiarized with them, you will find many difficulties to understand (maybe not so to be understood if you master R.P. English)

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